Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Modern Italian Woman and Her Journey on the Wine Trail

Happy Birthday, Raffaella!

A picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, 3,500. My friend and colleague, Raffaella, posted a photo from her youth. I thought I recognized that person from my youthful wanderings in Rome. A narrative was begging to be released. But it would be better coming from the woman whose image was reflected in the photograph. It’s timely, as many Italians in the wine trade are putting away their skis and golf clubs from their holiday vacations and getting back on the road. It’s also pertinent for young wine professionals, women and men, to read these words. It covers a life in wine, and in those words, there might be some guideposts for those whose experience in the wine trade hasn’t yet led them. Not yet. Thank you Raffaella, for sharing your story. It’s the story of wine, of a woman in modern times and of Italy during one of the most exciting and turbulent times in its history.

Becoming a Wine Veteran
By Raffaella Guidi Federzoni

It all started from a photo that I posted on my Facebook profile. A photo of more than thirty five years ago. A photo of myself, taken at the end of August 1979, last century.

Alfonso saw it and was puzzled by the image of a girl who looked very much in the style of those years: casual, optimistic, a touch arrogant, carefree. And young, oh, so young!

Alfonso is a very close friend of mine, a wine-friend, meaning that I met him thanks to that common denominator called wine.

Because of that photo my wine-friend asked me to write my story and here I am , writing about what happened since that day in August 1979. I will try to focus on the slice related to the wine world, which is anyway a considerable one in what can be called the whole cake of my life.

If you don’t like it or find it boring, blame Alfonso, not me.

The remote past
In August 1979 I was back after eight months spent in the USA as an au pair girl, looking after a couple of spoiled kids generated by a very intellectual couple of American academics. My parents sent me there after I gave up law school, as they didn’t know what to do with me, “At least you will learn English”. It was a traumatic and energetic experience for the girl that I was, born and raised in a Roman upper class environment.

You have to think that in those times the cultural gap between America and Europe was wider than the Atlantic Ocean itself, especially regarding the topic “food and wine”. To be sincere I don’t recall a single bottle of wine drunk over there, in New England. I remember huge cartons of milk or orange juice, always enriched with protein/vitamins, but not wine.

Vice-versa I remember vividly the food, rarely consumed all together, in the sense that the father had breakfast at 3.00 pm, the baby had meals five times a day, the little girl had sandwiches randomly and the mother never ate, she was too busy being neurotic about what everybody else was eating.

To cut a long story short, I came back to Italy weighing 10 kilos more after having eaten for eight months a lot of stuff, from baby food to crappy sandwiches, and having swallowed gallons of enriched milk and orange juice.

I came back to my Roman upper class family, a world that I knew very well, but that after the American spell looked dated and tedious.

All I wanted was to leave again.

The past
It would take me twenty years to go back to the US. In between I can count at least four different jobs, about a dozen of quick love affairs, half a dozen of houses, one wedding, two kids.

And, of course, the move from Rome to Montalcino.

My first official job in Rome was to be a typist in the purchase department of Bulgari, the very well known jeweler based in the heart of the Roman luxury district. After a year of slaving over a mechanical typing machine for a laughable salary I was promoted Personal Assistant of the Boss of bosses, mostly because nobody else wanted to confront him on a daily basis.

Four more years passed and I was growing more and more frustrated. I was single, a part of the occasional one-night stand, I wasn’t earning very much, I was stuck in a job with no chance of improvement, even if it looked glamorous and glittering.

All I wanted was to leave again.

Then, at the beginning of September 1983, Destiny put its big foot transversally on my path. It had the ravishing look of a blond Sassenach, romantic enough to buy a ruin in the middle of the Tuscan woods, and crazy enough to decide to live there with no money, just a pair of capable hands. Impossible to resist, I gave in to this new adventure and moved out of Rome after having found a job in that area and a flat with running water and sound walls. Craziness and Romance but with a pinch of salt.

When I left, my father said “If you are going to be poor, at least you will be poor in Montalcino.” This because he just completed his three years course at the Roman Sommelier Association. Not that he needed to be a sommelier, he was a well-established lawyer, he just liked the wine matter.

With his bitter-sweet blessing I finally arrived in Montalcino and my first job there was to entertain visitors, showing around the large spaces of a recently built wine concern. Villa Banfi was the name of the estate established by the Mariani family, a leading US importer of Italian wines, especially Lambrusco.

Montalcino, ca. 1984
It wasn’t easy, and that is an understatement. Coming from the pampered world of jewelry and luxury with its rituals consumed mostly in a fashionable city environment, I had to confront myself with the basic country life, even if surrounded by the most spectacular views.

During the two and a half years that I spent working there I learned a lot about wine, its production, marketing and communication.

I learned about new grape varieties: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc. I learned about the rules of different appellations. I learned about the process of winemaking. I started to learn about tasting and describing what I was tasting.

Not that I was totally virgin on that territory, in my family wine was an essential part of every meal, but a part of Chianti, Lambrusco, occasionally Amarone and Barolo, I didn’t really had the chance of drinking a wide spectrum of different wines.

For the whites was even worst, some basic stuff coming from Apulia in the summer and that was it. Asti and Champagne only for weddings and Christmases.

You have to think that Italy in the eighties was still very fractioned about drinking habits, even for the wealthy classes.

If I look back at those years and even a touch further back, I realize that I was going with the trend. In the sense that I started to be involved in the wine world at the dawn of the Modern Italian Wine Age. I consider myself very lucky for it.

While I was working at Banfi, I had the chance of meeting very interesting people The Marianis didn’t spare anything in bringing to Montalcino wine writers and wine VIP of the caliber of Hugh Johnson, Burton Anderson, Robert Mondavi and so on. I was the sub-assistant of the PR Assistant, but I worked hard, bloody hard I must say. I enjoyed meeting people so different from my original background, not just coming from far, as the human landscape of Montalcino provided any sort of choices: Anglo-Saxons eccentrics, German ecologists, American wannabe artists, Tuscan Squires and above all, local ex sharecroppers turned into small winegrowers.

Slowly I was building up a knowledge about topics that I would have never thought to be so interesting, and a different look to Nature in general.

I was also building up a different body, more used to the rigors of Winter and the discomforts of bad roads, bad floors, bad windows.

In late Spring 1987 I gave my resignations to Banfi and went to work for the Biondi Santi family, in their Montalcino’s estate called Il Greppo. This move was like leaving Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for the Tower of London. I mean from something flamboyant, modern if not contemporary, open to everyone, to an iconic landmark, austere enough to require caution in the approach. There, instead of walking miles through rooms that looked a Nasa laboratories, I was confined behind a desk again. But the place was beautiful, with no division between the old manor house and the offices, the surroundings were gorgeous and Franco Bondi Santi, the owner, was a man totally dedicated to his vineyards and wines.

The pace of work was not so hectic as it had been in Banfi, for almost three years I carried on in learning, concentrating more in the Brunello di Montalcino, its history, its style and its nuances.

At Greppo there weren’t as many visitors as in Banfi, but the average quality of them was high. The people who came to visit were knowledgeable and prepared for a tour in the essential cellar and a quick tasting from a barrel. All they wanted was to meet the Icon in the person of Franco Biondi Sandi who was always gracious in telling again and again the same story.

I watched him and listen to all his words, which slowly deposited in my memory together with his gestures.

In 1988, in Springtime, the Community of Montalcino celebrated the 100 years of Brunello making, 100 “official” years I should say as the wine and its name go back much further. However, it was a big event that witnessed the presence of quite a few international wine writers. It was a big come back for Montalcino and the beginning of the Contemporary Era for Brunello.

10 days after the event I got married.

The 12th of May 1989 my first son, Oliver, was born. In the November of the same year the Berlin Wall was dismantled. A few years later, in 1992 the series of political and judiciary events called in Italian “Mani pulite” would start to roll towards an avalanche that swept away a decrepit ruling class and gave space to a new generation of politicians. I still don’t know if the form changed but the substance remained or not. Today I cynically think that the first option is the true one.

Back in my little country world, life went on.

Because the birth of my son I gave my resignation to Franco Biondi Santi and set up to be a proper Mom and housewife. It took me only less than a year to realize that I wasn’t suited to be a just a Mom, plus any extra money coming in would have been more than welcomed.

Thus, in February 1990 I bought the licence for a Wine shop in the center of Montalcino called Ars Bibendi. My father helped with a little sum of money, considering his love of wines he was hoping to have better and free supplies of his favorite drink.

I embarked in this new adventure with little knowledge of business but with a huge enthusiasm.

It would take me four years to finally understand that I was nor suited for this sort of entrepreneurship. It would take me nights of panic because I didn’t know how to pay my debts, and no answer to the question ”Why they don’t buy these wines, the best for the cheapest price it can be found around here?”. It happened that I decided to buy and try to sell not just the wines from Montalcino, but also from other areas of Tuscany and Italy. This led to disaster, because the people that come to town only wanted the wines from here.

It would take me four miscarriages due to the stress to convince me to sell the business before it was too late.

Looking back to those years now, I see the experience of a wine store a sort of investment to increase my knowledge and my palate. Now that all the debts have being paid since long, I consider myself more than lucky to have experienced four years of learning and tasting in my kitchen with my husband a few friends.

I tasted all the wines that I was going to sell, sometimes more than once.

The bottles that couldn’t be sold ended up in my cellar when the business was finally sold in June 1994.

In October 1995 I gave birth to my second son, Peter.

For a while I worked as a freelance consultant for a couple of wineries. It was odd to be home for most of the time, we were living in a rented farm house with a gorgeous view outside and a freezing temperature inside. The small property that my husband still owned, in the middle of nowhere, was too far and basic for us.

It had to remain a dream.

The almost present
Stefano Cinelli Colombini was one of the first friends that we made in Montalcino, an ironic and interesting person who kept that sort of low profile typical of a true country gentleman. His family had been for generations a leading force in Montalcino, not just for winemaking, also for cultural heritage and political power, but he was (and is) always direct and friendly in his relationships without any snobbism. We liked each other, finding a common ground on many subjects. Therefore, when in January 1998 his mother Francesca Colombini phoned me with the proposal of working for the family’s estate Fattoria dei Barbi, I accepted immediately.

Well, almost immediately. First I had a brief talk with my husband, considering the pros and cons of working full time while our kids were still in their childhood. Through the past years he did work not just on his own minuscule property – which was eventually sold – but also as a painter-decorator-tiler, breaking his back and exhausting himself. The final job was to renovate a small town house that we managed to buy in the historical center of Montalcino. We just moved in with eight years old Oliver and two years old Peter. Our families lived far away and we couldn’t afford a baby sitter anymore.

“It’s better that you go out and work and I stay home and look after the children.” He said half joking. And then Francesca Colombini phoned… So, it didn’t take long to reach the mutual agreement regarding our roles. I would have to go out and earn a living and he would stay home, being a housewife cum maintenance man.

It has worked very well, mostly because Simon (my husband) is a super Dad, cook, gardener, butler and above all, companion.

Thus, in January 22nd 1998 I entered the offices of Fattoria dei Barbi, I remember the precise date because it was my fortieth birthday.

After nineteen years I am still there.

My first responsibility was shaping the hospitality, which meant to organize and look after tours-tastings-lodgings for all the visitors. Soon it became necessary to hire a couple of more people because the flow of tourists was getting constantly higher.

Meanwhile I carried on learning the inner mechanism of a large family estate, from the long history of the Colombinis to the locations of the vineyards, from the intellectual legacy of many generations to the personality of the Cellar Master.

Stefano was very busy to manage the transformation of the property into a more agile and efficient modern concern and didn’t have much time to dedicate to the foreign market. That’s why I got up one day with the qualification of Export Manager and my job moved very quickly from looking after the visitors to look after the markets.

In late January 1999, I went back to the US, after almost twenty years.

Since then, I have been back at least sixty times, if not more, I stopped counting long time ago. Plus I have visited regularly Canada, from the East to the West, Japan, China, Korea, Brasil, UK, Russia, UK, Germany.

While I was carrying on with my travels, the rules and situations changed, particularly in the US. What seemed in the late nineties a very stable routine in the sales of Brunello, later became a sort of roller coaster in terms of purchases and loyalty from our customers. A combination of negative exchange rate, growth of production and offer of Italian wines, political instabilities generated by September Eleven, made the American market a huge question mark and a tiresome battle field. And when America has the flu, all the rest of the world gets ill.

I resisted, insisted, persisted.

I resisted to the temptation of giving up the many times in which I thought I couldn’t make it, especially during the cruel years in which my son Oliver was desperately ill and my original family in Rome was disintegrating. It was then that the term “Family business” was enlightened by the generosity of Francesca and Stefano, who not just kept my position at work even when I had little time for it, but also supported myself and my family practically and psychologically.

I insisted in remaining faithful to the wines that I represented. Their fame was tamed by prejudice and I was convinced that was unfair. I build up confidence not just in their quality but also in my capacity of communicating it. Confronting a single customer, or an audience of dozens of people, was my training, and I have trained hard.

I persisted in learning, not just about the wines that I was already calling “mine”, but about any wine that I was hearing of.

Any opportunity given by my travels, during small tastings or large fairs, going around with sales people, I tried, asked and then memorized both tastes and replies.

My bonus, the huge reward of all, was the chance to meet more and more winepeople and their peculiar way of blending normality with eccentricity.

It was, is and always be, the case of Humanity giving a twist to Nature.

The Present
I am now in another hotel room, maybe New York, maybe Tokyo, it doesn’t really matter. What matters to make it working for the best is to keep what I call “Pride & Drive.”

The Pride given by the understanding of myself, my experience, my talents, my limits. Not presumption but recognition.

The Drive given by my curiosity, empathy, interest and hardhead.

There is still so much to do. I can’t stop, not yet.

When I move around I notice a subtle difference of attitude towards myself. If once I was The Apprentice, now I am the Veteran. I am not so sure that I like it.

I am not so sure about liking when people slow down their pace in order to wait for me, or give me their arm to get out from a car.

I am still amazed when I look to myself in a mirror and discover that NO, this woman cannot be the girl who drunk and was up late last night.

I am a woman and I am vane.

And talking about being once a girl and now a woman, I have to confess that YES, I had my share of mobbing and sexual harassment, but it was never very bad.

When I was working and living in Rome, in my twenties, I dressed according to my femininity not caring if it could be misinterpreted as a provocation. Much earlier in my life I had a couple of bad episodes that tamed my vision of the male world, but I got over them.

Through the years I realized that if my look could help, it was only for the first five minutes. After a very short time, personality, attitude, knowledge, would have been the cards to play. At this not just on the working side of life, but for the whole of it.

Regarding my job of more than thirty years I have only one suggestion for girls and boys: don’t overdo in IT, it is the wine that eventually seduces, not you.

There is still a lingering discrimination in the wine world, despite the fast growing of women actually “making” wine, and making it very good indeed. This is seen as extraordinary, not normal.

It is OK to be a female promoter, a female sales manager, even a female wine writer, but oh my God, a female wine maker, a wine maker with boobs! You have to be at least Lalou Bize Leroy, otherwise you risk to be classified a wannabe: daughter, wife, niece of a MAN who happens to be the one that started the wine business.

There are exceptions, more and more. When the exceptions will disappear into the regular way of things being, that will be a good day.

The future
Visual, social, interactive. Call it what you want, but language is here to stay and so is wine.

I would be a fool to deny the impact of new way of communication and the obligation of knowing its rules. I am well aware of the change and try to use the right instruments, but it would be a short term accomplishment if this language had not substance. The substance is the quality, the depth of words. Yes, words.

If you don’t know the meaning of words and the way of using them, you will be swept away by the next ones who are coming and pressing to be noticed and remembered. There is always somebody more flamboyant than you, more updated, more visible.

But nobody is more you than you, if you are true to yourself and to your work.

The same could be said for wine. Trends come and go, but truth is here to stay.

If you, reader, have been so brave and patient to read my words to the end, now you deserve to open a bottle and drink a good glass, maybe even two.


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